May 22, 2005

Teaching the Bible

Although I nearly had a heart attack (so young!) when I thought I saw John Ashcroft cited as a scholarly source here—he wasn't—this David Gerlenter essay about the Bible and the decline of "Bible literacy" among young Americans today at least raises some good questions. The Bible is pretty central to American history and thought—so how does one go about teaching it?
So let's have Bible-as-literature electives in every public high school, by all means. But let's also face facts: These are hard courses to teach at best. Do we have teachers who are up to the job? (With laudable foresight, the Bible Literacy Project is already developing workshops for teachers.) And let's also keep in mind that, for most children, such courses can only be half-way houses. Children studying the Bible should learn their own religious traditions as precious truth, not as one alternative on a multicultural list.
Now as it happens, Gerlenter isn't the first to think about these questions—the First Amendment Center has put out a pamphlet, "The Bible and Public Schools: a First Amendment Guide" that, as far as I know, has been endorsed by a number of religious and secular organizations (from PFAW to the National Association of Evangelicals to the Council on Islamic Education). It suggests that the Bible ought to taught in an academic, not devotional manner, that it generally should not be the only such text in a given course, and that events in the Bible should not necessarily be taught as historical fact. Plus, various interpretations should be presented. Seems like a workable compromise.

The fear Gerlenter has, though, is that the Bible will be cheapened or somehow made mundane by being taught in public schools. It's a reasonable fear—how many kids have lost any possible love for, say, Shakespeare, by first reading it in 10th grade? Right. Meanwhile, Supreme Court doctrine on religion in public schools states that the school can officially neither "approve nor disapprove" of religion, as Sandra Day O'Connor put it. But in the classroom, teachers are perfectly welcome to approve or disapprove of the content of other literary or philosophical texts—indeed, I had an 11th grade English teacher who all but elevated Albert Camus' The Stranger, and a peculiar strain of existentialism along with it, to a religion of sorts. (And I'm not proud to admit it, but it certainly had an effect on my impressionable young mind!) That one set of ideas can be endorsed but not another seems a bit odd.

Still, the analogy to literature suggests there's no perfect way to do this—it's impossible to set national standards for taste in any artistic or cultural work without collapsing the range of things teachers can and should be allowed to do. Sometimes a teacher can give her students a deep and thorough appreciation for, say, Shakespeare, but that's not the sort of project you can force any teacher to undertake. So it is with the Bible: some will teach it in a way more conducive to religious belief, some will teach it in a way conducive to secularism. As long as there's no official school policy either way, that's probably fine with me, although I'm sure there are all sorts of things I'm not considering here.
-- Brad Plumer 1:54 PM || ||